In March 2001, an agreement with Agusta Aerospace Corporation was made to lease eight A109E Power helicopters. HITRON Jacksonville faced many new challenges as they converted a civilian corporate helicopter into an armed shipboard deployable aircraft. These aircraft were equipped with the latest radar and Forward Looking Infrared sensor system capable of recording activities on tape to facilitate prosecution. HITRON armed these helicopters with M-16 5.56mm rifles and M240 7.62mm machine guns for warning shots and self-protection, and the RC50 laser-sighted .50 caliber precision rifle to disable the engines of non-compliant suspect vessels. They were given the military designation of MH-68A.
Night shipboard landings, a first for the Coast Guard and now operational procedure Coast Guard wide, were initiated using the ANVIS-9 Night Vision Goggles integrated with the ANVIS-7 heads-up display (HUD) system, and were the first users in the world to operate the latest generation of these night vision devices.
For counter drug operations, HITRON aircrews forward deploy aboard Coast Guard cutters for 30-60 day deployments, and aircrews are typically deployed about 120 days a year total.
If a suspect trafficker fails to stop after numerous visual and verbal warnings, the helicopter crew will take up a firing position alongside the go-fast and fire warning shots across their bow to further compel them to stop. If the warning shots do not convince the suspects to stop, the helicopter crew prepares to disable the vessel by shooting out the go-fast’s engines. Using precision, laser-sighted .50 caliber rifles, the helicopter crew positions themselves alongside the fleeing go-fast for disabling shots. Most of the go-fasts have multiple engines, and the helicopter crew will continue to fire into these engines until the suspects stop or they are forced to stop. Once stopped, the vessel will be boarded by the Coast Guard pursuit boat crew and the smugglers taken into custody.